|Self Portrait, 1778|
The work that has caught my eye today is The Skater, a 1782 oil painting commissioned from Stuart in one year earlier. By this time he had been living in England for four years and serving as apprentice to apprentice to Benjamin West; during this time he attracted a great deal of attention for his portraits, exhibiting to some acclaim at the Royal Academy.
In 1781 Stuart was approached by William Grant, a Scot who had designs on becoming the subject of the artist's first full-length portrait. Although apprehensive of embarking on the project, Stuart accepted and it was duly agreed that Grant would sit for the artist in a traditional pose.
On the day of the sitting, both artist and subject remarked on the crisp coldness of the air and discovered that they shared an enthusiasm for ice skating. As is so often the case one thing led to another and soon the painting was abandoned in favour of a trip to Hyde Park to skate on the frozen Serpentine. Here the men drew admiring onlookers as they showed off their skating prowess, spending the afternoon enjoying the outdoors in an all-too familiar display of procrastination.
|The Skater by Gilbert Stuart, 1782|
Set apart from the other, distant skaters, Grant cuts a fine and fashionable figure upon the ice. Although one can glimpse the city on the horizon it might be a hundred miles away or more for all its import to those enjoying the simple pleasure of skating. However, though he is not alone on the ice, Grant utterly dominates the scene. His dark clothes stand out against the pale background and he looks away from us and off of the canvas, at something we cannot see.
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 to great acclaim, attracting admiration for the unusual concept and the masterful execution. Stuart found his career catapulted into the stratosphere by the painting, the artist suddenly in high demand from the finest patrons. He was an apprentice no longer, and his life would never be the same.